Posted by: gabybarber23 | December 11, 2021

Victorian Adolescence and Sculpture

In my search to decide what to write my final blog post about, I pulled up the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum Website and typed “Victorian” into the search bar. By some stroke of luck, the search returned a variety of results, one of which was a sculpture created by British artist Sir Alfred Gilbert, titled An Offering to Hymen which is from c. 1886 (Fahey). According to the webpage which features Fahey’s description, the item is not currently on display at the museum, but you can view it on the website

Beneath the image of the sculpture there is a description attributed to Eva Fahey, a member of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s class of 2017, and an exhibit entitled: “A Very Long Engagement: Nineteenth Century Sculpture and Its Afterlives” which ran from July 29th, 2017 to May 27th, 2018. Fahey’s description explicitly associates the sculpture with adolescence. I have cited Fahey as the author of the webpage as their name is listed underneath all of the information.

Gilbert’s sculpture depicts a naked girl with her hair arranged off her shoulders, her eyes closed, her legs pressed together, and her hands holding what Fahey notes to be a hawthorn branch and a statue of Anteros in front of her chest. She stands on a pedestal decorated with arches (Gilbert). Fahey writes: “This sculpture asks you to share the uncertainty of a young girl venturing into adulthood and to consider the uneasiness that accompanies her transition. What conflicts or outside forces might she face in the future?”

In asking this question, and sharing that Anteros is the god of reciprocal love, Fahey leads us to examine the anxieties a Victorian girl would feel as she approaches the prospect of marriage. Fahey writes: “Gilbert’s piece is contextualized by the expectations of the Victorian era, a time when early marriage was common if not expected.” It seems from this piece and Fahey’s description that adolescence for Victorian girls is just the stage of life when they begin to think about the future and their marriage prospects. I would say that adolescence in the modern day United States is largely concerned with the “what next?” step – or, in other words, what do you do once you turn 18? Work? Study more? Travel? At least for me, figuring out what I wanted to do for college was a large marker of my teen years. I think in some senses, adolescence may just be a phase where someone puts down their toys for a bit in favor of contemplating adult life in a genuine way. 

Unfortunately, I left my copy of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll at school, but Fahey’s discussion of this sculpture in relation to adolescence reminds me of our discussions in class about the novel and adolescence. I think it is interesting and important that this idea was being explored not only through a literary medium, but through an artistic one, as well. 

I think what is most significant about Gilbert’s sculpture is the way in which it puts the girl’s body on display. The nudity of the girl asks the viewer to consider her adolescence not only socially, but physically, too. This again reminds me of in-class discussion, where we talked about artistic traditions in which drawings of girls where given adult-like features but retained their child’s body. I think Gilbert’s sculpture, based on Fahey’s association of it with adolescence, rejects the idea that girls turn into women – rather, girls turn into teens and then become women. However, it is also important to acknowledge that this sculpture is a Victorian man’s rendering of an adolescent girl, much like Alice in Wonderland is a Victorian man’s exploration of girlhood. It would be interesting to see how a Victorian woman would have represented and interpreted the same subject. 

Works Cited

Gilbert, Alfred. An Offering to Hymen. c. 1866. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. Mount 

Holyoke College Art Museum. Web. Photograph by Laura Shea. Accessed 11 Dec. 2021. 

Fahey, Eva. “An Offering to Hymen.” Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, 11 Dec. 2021. 

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